Study protocol: effects of treatment expectation toward repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in major depressive disorder : a randomized controlled clinical trial

Background: Patients’ expectations toward any given treatment are highly important for the effectiveness of such treatment, as has been demonstrated for several disorders. In particular, in major depressive disorder (MDD), one of the most frequent and most serious mental disorders with severe consequences for the affected, the augmentation of available treatment options could mean a ground-breaking success. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), a new, non-invasive, and well-tolerated intervention with proven effects in the treatment of MDD, appears particularly suitable in this context as it is assumed to exert its effect via structures implicated in networks relevant for both expectation and depression.

Methods: All patients will receive rTMS according to its approval. Half of the patients will be randomized to a psychological intervention, which is a comprehensive medical consultation aiming to improve positive treatment expectations; the control group will receive a conventional informed consent discussion (in the sense of a treatment-as-usual condition). As outcome parameters, instruments for both self-assessment and external assessment of depression symptoms will be applied. Furthermore, psycho-immunological parameters such as inflammation markers and the cortisol awakening response in saliva will be investigated. Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs fMRI) will be performed to analyze functional connectivity, including the cerebellum, and to identify neuronal predictors of expectation effects. In addition, possible cerebellar involvement will be assessed based on a cerebellar-dependent motor learning paradigm (i.e., eyeblink conditioning).

Discussion: In this study, the effects of treatment expectations towards rTMS are investigated in patients with MDD. The aim of this study is to identify the mechanisms underlying the expectation effects and, beyond that, to expand the potential of non-invasive and well-tolerated treatments of MDD.

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